I recently shared Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with a majority of the high school juniors I have in class. The class is designed to cover a variety of American literature pieces, and this was the first year I’d used that book, which is also quite special to me in that it is one of my wife’s favorites. For those of you unfamiliar with the collection, it is a book of short stories that can be read as an entire novel; however, it is styled much differently that probably any war novel you’ve read before. First of all, it’s anachronistic; and second of all it stars the author. I estimated with my students that 90-95 percent of the book’s content was non-fiction, but even a shred of invented material demanded that it be listed as fiction. It was enough for them to understand.
The book is a particularly moving series of scenes and insight to the lives of men who served. I’m not a professional critic, but I determined as I read it that O’Brien set out to expose a much darker and honest side of military life than the most serious of war novelists who preceded him. Hemingway and Salinger, two of my personal writing muses, were masters of the craft, but both served in wars that were both enormously planned and completely not on television. O’Brien and the other men of Alpha Company found themselves in drastically different circumstances.
While I’d like to write about O’Brien’s book, I think I’d rather wait to read it again a few more times before any real review can be shared. The book did, however, lead me to re-read one of my favorite Salinger short stories, “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.”
I’ve written about that particular piece before, but it has been many years ago—part of a graduate course where I immaturely compared many of Salinger’s lesser-known pieces and attempted to exhibit some poise and discerning maturity in reading Literature. I’ll save you from any of those excerpts. Now, after reading the story today—a magnificent Memorial Day afternoon nonetheless—I have a few thoughts swimming around that, for reasons I have yet to truly decipher, I felt the need to share with you loyal readers.
Dear God, Life is Hell.
That’s a line from the story, and perhaps five of the most poignant words anyone who has any affiliation with war can possibly produce. While this brief writing today is not meant to go political or even attempt to change anyone’s perspective, I’d just like to write a little about those words—and perhaps encourage anyone reading this to do the same.
We question our existence and we consume each other’s answers for that existence. Our lives have the potential to be anything from quiet to dynamic. We tend to spend a lot of time examining the lives of one another and the deceased. Some people, upon becoming parents or guardians, tend to shift priorities. We have the capacity to believe in a supreme God or deny His existence at all. We have the power to love and to hate. We hold within ourselves so much more influence than we realize—often when it’s too late. Those last two sentences were not intended to rhyme, but that’s always a happy accident too.
If anything is to be deciphered from this prattling on, it’s probably this: Perhaps we should not worry so much about life’s big Questions and Answers. Perhaps, instead, we should simply Live and cherish our own Existence.